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Critic's pick: Randall Bramblett

Randall Bramblett

Now It's Tomorrow

When a songsmith like Randall Bramblett remains so overlooked for so long, you really have to wonder about the future of popular music and the tastes that drive it.

For more than three decades, the Georgia-born writer and multiinstrumentalist has quietly navigated pop waters with a string of seven unassuming solo albums, and five more with the equally neglected Sea Level.

A long-running affiliation with Steve Winwood, (including a 1994 Traffic reunion, and more recent collaborations with jam-band fave Widespread Panic have provided Bramblett at least some level of visibility. But every few years, he drops another diamond of an album full of songs that embrace a rich Southern legacy — more in the literary character of the lyrics than in the music — without ever overemphasizing the inspiration.

Now It's Tomorrow is his latest gem. It's perhaps a little more electric in design than past solo albums and is rooted a touch less in the fanciful Southern stride of such stellar works as 2001's No More Mr. Lucky. But all of the striking components are on display.

The stories all come with a very human cast, and the singing bears a familiar humidity, meaning there are echoes everywhere of sterling soul. But Bramblett's vocal delivery is forever cool. Much like the music it services, the singing reveals a soul-savvy accent that favors conversational ease over forced hipness. And the music itself, although it rocks with a more fortifying edge than before, shifts from jazzy strides to playfully discreet grooves that emphasize Bramblett's colorful runs on organ and saxophone. Longtime pal Davis Causey, a cohort since before the Sea Level days of the late 1970s, continues to anchor the tasteful guitar punch of Bramblett's songs.

There is no denying the bittersweet air draped over much of Now It's Tomorrow. Some Mean God is, in part, a eulogy to Bramblett's road manager, Stuart Collins, who died last year. But it's as much a song about emotional displacement as anything. ”Now the aggravating sun shines into my eyes,“ Bramblett sings over subtle, soulful syncopation, in an acknowledgement of loss and the newer, harsher world view that comes in its wake.

Blue Road is the flip side of that grief. It begins with a cloudy mix of Rhodes-style electric piano and discreet guitar twang as it beckons for a detour off the interstate into the rural riches that Bramblett knows so well. The music quickly lightens into summery swing. There also is a suggestion of romantic upheaval under the surface, just to keep the tune from becoming too much of a joy ride.

Best of all is You Better Move, a none-too-subtle intervention designed to pull a friend out of the darkness (”loneliness is a treasure you claim you deserve“). But the tune also is the sum of Now It's Tomorrow's arresting parts: specifically, melodies that pump up the scratchy contours of Bramblett's voice, guitars that charge with an almost elegant desperation, and a story that, amid all the musical might, confronts human frailty.

It's hard to imagine Now It's Tomorrow changing the big picture for Bramblett. Muscular as the music is at times, it doesn't veer far from the stately Southern tone that has long distinguished his recordings. But maybe the album will at least open a door or get Bramblett booked in a concert locale somewhere close to Lexington again. After all, his music has always been inviting. That we don't pick up on it more readily is pretty much our own fault.

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